US Soccer History 4

Continued from Page 3

US soccer history generously reposted on my website, courtesy of Dave Litterer

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Outdoor soccer reaches a low:  1985

 The mid 1980s were a gloomy time for outdoor soccer in the US. With the demise of the NASL in 1984, and the abrupt end of the United Soccer League in 1985, only the Western Soccer League, which had just finished its first season, remained playing outdoor soccer, with four surviving teams. The best chance for the sport to flourish in the United States had gone up in a sea of red ink and failed dreams with the demise of the NASL, yet the seeds had been planted for future growth. Many fans had gotten their first taste of first-rate pro soccer and wanted more. The surprisingly large crowd at soccer matches in the 1984 Olympics held at Los Angeles, despite the almost total lack of media coverage, showed that a large market existed for soccer as a spectator sport. Another important event, which went almost unnoticed at the time was the inauguration of the Women's National Team in 1985, which started on a very modest scale, but would steadily rise to gain world attention by the end of the 1990's.

Youth soccer had gained a firm foothold in mainstream America, and the youth game was growing by leaps and bounds. Spearheaded by national organizations such as the United States Youth Soccer Association and the American Youth Soccer Organization, soccer participation skyrocketed, soon eclipsing all but the most established sports in youth participation. This was partially due to accessibility and lack of expenses. Soccer did not require great strength or size, and the outlay for equipment and uniforms was minimal compared to sports such as hockey and football. With two competing organizations (USYSA and AYSO), options were available both for people who preferred a more recreational game (AYSO) and those who preferred a more competitive situation (USYSA). Many parents who had gotten their first taste of the game at NASL matches saw soccer as a viable vocation for their children, and the growth of the youth game has continued to this day. For the future, many children who first attended soccer at NASL matches are now eager fans of MLS, and active participants in local soccer programs as parents or coaches.

For much of the 1980's, the indoor game was the main event. The MISL benefited from a large infusion of talent as highly talented players joined from the NASL, several of whom became preeminent players throughout the decade. Gary Etherington, Steve Zungul, Keith Furphy, Dale Mitchell, Juli Veee, Jim McAlister, Alan Willey, Steve David, Clyde Best, Paul Child, and Karl-Heinz Granitza among others continued their careers well into the 1980;s with the MISL. In addition, Dave Brcic, Rick Davis, Ty Keough, Hugo Perez, Fernando Clavijo, and Frank Klopas combined their starring roles in the indoor game with stints on the US National team. Several stars of the 1990's and the MLS got their start in the MISL, including Preki, Cle Kooiman, Peter Vermes, Hector Marinaro (NPSL), Ted Eck, Chad Ashton, Goran Hunjak, Iain Fraser, and Shawn Medved.

The rivalry between the MISL and the AISA heated up in the 1980's once these two leagues were clearly established as the primary professional leagues in the US. By now, all existing outdoor leagues (The Western Soccer League and the Lone Star Soccer Alliance, formed in 1987) were operating at a basically semi-pro level, and all the top stars were indoors.

The Road to the World Cup

 US Soccer officials had for a long time seen the hosting of a world cup in the United States as a last hope for establishing outdoor soccer in the country. The USSF had been promoting this idea for many years, most notably during the waning days of the NASL, when a serious bid for the 1986 World Cup was made, after the original host, Columbia was disqualified. This gambit nearly succeeded. The success of the NASL proved that a large fan base existed, as did the high numbers of Americans with strong ethnic ties to their ancestral countries. A natural fan base would exist not only for the American team, but also for many of the other teams that would most likely make the cut. The US was second to none in terms of infrastructure with an overabundance of large stadiums, albeit ones with less than ideal gridiron field configurations, many containing Astroturf fields. Despite these drawbacks, the US made it to the semifinalist stage, and it was felt they were rejected in favor of Columbia, primarily by skepticism about the US market, and the financial problems of the declining NASL. It was felt the World Cup would never sell in the US because of the lack of success at the professional level. Less than a year after the US lost their bid, the soccer competition at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles broke all records for the Olympic competition, making Soccer the most heavily attended competition in the entire Olympics. This despite an almost complete lack of coverage in the US media.

Another major problem hampering US efforts was the disarray of the National team. With a disappointing performance in the Olympics, the demise of the NASL, the disastrous 1986 World Cup qualifying performance, and a general lack of leadership, the National team almost became dormant in the mid 1980's, playing only two full internationals in 1986, and a mixed bag of games in 1987, starting with a disappointing 0-2 loss to Canada in their first Olympic qualifier, but finishing with a respectable performance in the Pan-American games. Clearly, the National team was in danger of becoming irrelevant if it continued to miss out on qualifying for major international tournaments, and it could not afford to continue in this manner.

The outdoor game achieved a modest revival after 1986. The Lone Star Soccer Alliance made its debut in 1987, with teams in Texas and nearby states, and the Western League continued its slow growth, extending down the west coast into California. These two leagues operated at a modest, basically division 3 level. A more ambitious effort was the third American Soccer League, which had as its goal the return of 1st division soccer in America. This league, operating along the east coast in major cities, was able to attract some of the more prominent American players, including a number on the National Team, and drew crowds comparable to the final years of the ASL II. Finally, another small, almost unnoticed event that would later become significant was the meeting of some western arena owners who, looking for a sport to keep their rinks open during the off-season, joined together under the leadership of Francisco Marcos to form the Southwest Indoor Soccer League. This low-level indoor league would grow in increments through the rest of the 20th century to become a major cornerstone of the entire US soccer structure by the end of the century.

A Change in Fortunes, 1988

 USSF knew that it needed a major showcase event in the US to promote the sport to the top level, and hence, it spared no effort in 1987-88 when it bid for the 1994 Cup. Despite the recent travails of the National team, FIFA officials were impressed by the size and potential of the US market and saw it as an opportunity to open new markets. The USSF stressed these factors, as well as the success of the 1984 Olympics, and produced an impressive set of proposed venues for the competitions. Most importantly, it committed to establishing a bona-fide first division professional league to be in operation by the time the cup was held. The US was also helped by the overall weakness of the competing bidders; Brazil had enormous stadiums, which looked good on the surface but in reality wee dilapidated and poorly maintained, and Morocco had only two stadiums that met FIFA requirements. Werner Fricker, then the USSF President, had learned from the mistakes made in the previous bid. The result was the awarding of the 1994 World Cup to the United States on the condition that they establish a 1st division professional league. After the USSF made a slow start in organizing the tournament, FIFA became disenchanted, seeing Fricker as too provincial, and without the business acumen needed to carry off a project of this magnitude, and so in 1990, they promoted Alan Rothenberg to run against him for USSF President. Rothenberg, who had headed the US Olympic Soccer program, was an experienced international lawyer with experience in dealing with the soccer bigwigs and professional organizations on an international level, and who understood that the World Cup was big business and needed an organization to match.

If the Americans were to make an appropriately impressive appearance as hosts of the 94 Cup, it would have to do a substantial amount of development. The team had been in disarray for years, and US players were hampered by lack of experience. In the NASL, the Americans were generally bench-warmers and substitutes, despite quotas requiring an increasing minimum number of US players to be on the roster and on the field at all times. The colleges, from which almost all National team players came, simply did not provide adequate playing time due to the constricted fall playing season and the inability of college players to play on amateur teams outside of the collegiate season. The indoor leagues, which provided most of the professional soccer employment, did not prepare players for the type of game they would play in the Cup. In fact, it was almost a completely different style of game, and this experience was of little value elsewhere.

The first task at hand was to provide adequate high-level competition for the players who would make up the core of the team. The ASL and WSA provided a decent enough level of play for Americans to land playing spots abroad, but were far from sufficient to train a team for a respectable position in the World Cup. It was essential that an opportunity for consistent, long-term high-level competition be made available for National team players, waiting for the new League was not an option. To address this issue, the USSF developed a National team Training Program, in which players were contracted full-time to the National Team as salaried members, and would play year-around with the team. From this point on through the 1994 Cup, most roster players were contracted full-time with the USSF. When the Training Program started, the National team consisted of a hodge-podge of players from the ASL III, the WSA, the indoor MISL, various colleges and amateur teams. Pretty soon, most National team players were contracted full-time to play for the National Team, giving them for the first time extensive playing at a competitive level.

The Rebirth of Outdoor Soccer, 1988-1994

 In 1988, a group of US Soccer veterans, led by Chuck Blazer and Clive Toye, established a new American Soccer League (the third one) with the aim of re-establishing professional soccer using a financially conservative approach. The American Soccer League, Salaries and expenses were kept low enough to prevent the salary wars that ruined previous leagues. The league operated with ten teams on the east coast of the US, extending from Boston to Miami. It fit in well with the rest of the pro soccer scene with a minimum of conflict- the season didn't overlap with the indoor season, allowing players to compete year around in both seasons, and it complemented the Western Soccer League (now Alliance) which was now well established throughout California and the rest of the west coast.

The ASL and the WSA provided critical in supplying talent to the National team until it could get its Team-in-Training program off the ground. Such stars of the 1990's as Steve Trittschuh, John Harkes, Brian Bliss, Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray, Tab Ramos, and Marcelo Balboa got their starts here. The leagues, recognizing their complementary nature wisely avoided destructive fights and agreed to a merger in 1990, with the dream of building themselves into the new 1st division league envisioned by the World Cup organizers. In fact, the league operated at a fairly impressive level with a number of future National Team members on their rosters, before they were taken away by the USSF Training Program. The two leagues played separate regular seasons in 1990, while under the aegis of the new parent organization, the American Professional Soccer League. This league was recognized by FIFA as the official 2nd division league for the United States, but celebrations were premature, as financial disasters almost led to the demise of the league after their first season. Nine teams survived to continue in 1991, which actually provided a long-term benefit, as the smaller league enjoyed a considerably higher level of play, with the weaker teams rooted out and weaker players relegated to the SISL.

Almost unnoticed during this renaissance was the decision in 1989 by the regional Sunbelt Indoor Soccer League, (Francisco Marcos's renamed SISL) to play an outdoor season. The outdoor league involved 8 teams who chose to supplement their indoor league with an outdoor season, to provide all-year playing opportunities. Little did people know that this humble beginning would grow to become the primary source of development for players in the US.

By the end of the 1989 season, it looked as though American soccer would grow as a low-level series of regional leagues. In fact, many people made the argument that the proper way to develop professional soccer in the United States was by building it up at the grassroots level, before building a 1st division league. In fact, a fairly well organized series of regional leagues existed, both for the indoor and outdoor games. On the indoor side, the SISL had 15 teams, extending from Houston, Texas to Denver, Colorado, to Phoenix, AZ, to Little Rock Arkansas. The AISA operated primarily in the Midwest, with the MISL playing nationwide, but primarily on the east and west coasts. For outdoor soccer, the ASL III operated along the east coast, the WSA along the west, and the SISL in the south and southwest. Proponents of this strategy felt that these leagues would grow, and eventually establish themselves as nationally prominent, possibly merging and forming a hierarchical divisional structure. Other people felt that this process would take too long, and possibly stagnate, and that a new league would have to be established from the onset as a full-fledged 1st division circuit, with promotion and budgets to match. These two schools of thought predominated the arguments and discussions when it came time to start the work of establishing the professional circuit that was promised to FIFA by the organizers of the 1994 World Cup. This was to become one of the major continuing battles between different factions at the USSF during the early 1990's.

Continue to Page 5 of US Soccer History 

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